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Ask Ariely: On Putting off Procrastination, Selling Sherlock, and Feeling the DICE

Jan 31

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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I love my job, and I want to be successful and get promoted—but I seem to be my own worst enemy. I procrastinate a lot, and I don’t know how to stop. Any advice?
—Theo
 
You aren’t alone. Think of procrastination as just one more example of how we fail to do things that are in our long-term interests. Much of life is about fighting such temptations. 
 
Perhaps the best tool we have to fight procrastination is to set rules for ourselves. As William O’Donohue and Kyle Ferguson note in their book “The Psychology of B.F. Skinner,” the famous psychologist had a rule of waking up at 5 a.m. each day and not doing anything else until he had written for two hours. Facebook and email weren’t around to distract people back then, but plenty of other temptations were—and Skinner stuck to his commitment.
 
Such clear rules are useful because they leave us in no doubt about whether we are following them or not. This makes us feel bad when we violate them. So pick some rules, make them clear and strict, and for good measure, ask friends, family and colleagues to hold you to them.
 
P.S. Skinner was an amazing scientist, a master at designing his own life and controlling his environment. But I’m not sure he would have had the will power to resist “Candy Crush.”

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Why do people tend to like new versions of old things? In other words, how many versions of “Sherlock Holmes” will be made? Why do different countries make their own versions of TV shows that have already been hits elsewhere? Money can’t be the only reason. Am I the only one wondering, “Can’t they come up with something new?”
—Patricia
 
I’m willing to bet that “Sherlock Holmes” will be with us for as long as humanity continues to exist. The explanation lies in what psychologists call the “mere-exposure effect”: As something becomes more familiar to us through repetition, our brain starts to process that information more efficiently—and we mistake this faster processing for liking something.
 
In one of the first experiments to demonstrate the mere-exposure effect, a few research assistants were asked to sit in a large university class and say nothing for the whole semester. At the term’s end, the students in the class were asked how attractive they found the research assistants who had been sitting in the class, as well as new research assistants whom they had never met. The students, on average, considered the more familiar research assistants to be more attractive. 
 
To go back to “Sherlock”: My prediction is that as we see more of the legendary sleuth, we will like him more and demand more of the same—maybe with small variations, such as the clearly Holmes-inspired, mystery-solving doctor on “House.”

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I work for my company’s digital-strategy team, and for some reason, management doesn’t realize how important our work is to the organization’s future. As a consequence, our group is facing budget cuts, and no one really listens to us. What can we do to help management understand how vital we are to the company?
—Katz
 
Few improvements have ever resulted from making people understand anything. Try instead to make people feel.
 
I would suggest changing your department’s name from the “digital-strategy team” to the “digital innovation center for excellence”—or DICE. With all those buzzwords and a catchy acronym, who could cut your funding without feeling they’re harming the company?

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Help me redesign my website

Jan 27

Hello hello,

I think that my website needs a bit of a facelift, so I’ve created a contest on 99designs to design a new one.

Check out the contest right here, and apply if you’re up for the challenge!

Thanks and best wishes,

Dan Ariely

 

UPDATE: I needed to revise the contest so that it would be supported by wordpress. Please use the updated link above instead of the old link. Very sorry for the inconvenience and I look forward to your designs!

Ask Ariely: On Honoring Housework, BE to Business, and Laundering Linens

Jan 17

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Many women don’t feel recognized for all the work they do at home. When their husbands come home late from the office to something other than total bedlam, the oblivious men often fail to provide any appreciation or recognition. Would it help if women got paid for their housework? And if so, what is the best way to set up those payments?

—Lisa

I can’t think of any context in which one partner in a family should directly pay the other. But we do need to make sure that earning inequality doesn’t turn into power inequality.

One of the best (and worst) things about money is that it is easy to measure. So each partner’s financial contributions to the household are very clear, and differences can be overemphasized.

Consider a couple in which Person A earns much more than Person B, but Person B does everything else for the household. In such a case, A’s contribution to the relationship is easily quantified (bringing home most of the bacon), whereas B’s bit (taking care of the house, raising the children, dealing with paperwork, bills and so on) can’t be measured as precisely.

If the couple focuses on what’s easy to measure, A’s contribution looks more central. So A could feel more deserving, entitled and commanding while contributing less overall.

There is no magical solution to this problem, but one good step is to deal directly with the flow of money. Start by having one joint checking account for all income and ongoing expenses. On top of that, open two separate savings accounts (one for each partner), and split all savings equally into them.

Legally speaking, this type of accounting doesn’t make any difference, but in psychological terms, it makes a key statement about equality in financial contributions. It could weaken the link between financial contribution and power and offer a more holistic view of contributions to family life.

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What can businesses learn from your academic field of behavioral economics?

—Bella

As with any other scientific endeavor, my field has reached, over time, a better understanding of its domain—human behavior. The process has been slow, but the lessons are accumulating.

We have found, for example, the principle of loss aversion: It turns out that we humans hate losing more than we enjoy gaining. Or the IKEA effect—the finding that, once we take part in making something (like IKEA furniture), we start really liking it, and we assume that other people will like our creation too. These are discoveries that businesses can use in developing their products and services.

For all that we’ve learned, however, I suspect that the most important lesson is how little we know—the lesson of humility. We understand a great deal about human behavior, but we also have a lot of gaps, assumptions and blind spots. By training, social scientists are happy to admit how little we really know and much room there is for improvement.

If businesses adopted this approach, trusting their intuitions less and relying on research more, they would get a very high return on investment. Admitting our shortcomings is an important first step.

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We host a lot of overnight guests. Should I change the sheets on the guest bed every time a new guest arrives, even if the last one only stayed with us for one night? —Debbie

I am sure that you don’t want to tell your new guests that they are using “only slightly used linens,” and I am almost sure that you don’t want to hide things from your guests—so yes, change the sheets every time.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Guilt-Free Gift Cards, Business Buddies, and Fading Favors

Jan 03

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

This holiday season had me wondering: Why do people prefer to give and receive gift cards rather than cash, which you can use anywhere for anything?

—Van

Gift cards limit the way we can use money, which means that, from a strictly rational viewpoint, they are inferior to cash. But people prefer gift cards because of an irrational emotion called guilt—or, more accurately, because of our need to alleviate guilt.

When we look around us, we feel guilt over our desire for many different things: fancy chocolates, pens, expensive headsets, electronic gadgets, etc. We want these things, but the guilt caused by our wants is powerful, so it sometimes stops us.

When we get money, we’re likely to feel guilty about spending it on our more self-indulgent desires. But when we get a gift card, the guilt is much reduced and sometimes eliminated.

Interestingly, the particular level of guilt alleviation depends on the type of gift card. For example, if the card is an American Express gift card, it is basically the same thing as money, and it doesn’t ease much guilt. But if the gift card is restricted to Tiffany’s or REI, that money suddenly becomes more valuable. A dollar without guilt is worth more than a regular dollar.

And if you got any gift cards this holiday season, of any type, I suggest using them as if they were meant to be spent only in your favorite store—and enjoy them guilt-free.

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Dear Dan,

I realize that mixing friendship and business isn’t always the best idea, but I’m starting a business with a friend anyway, and I want to know the best way to mix the monetary bits of the business with the social aspects. Is there a single recipe for this?

—Clara

Going into business with people we know and love is indeed tempting. So long as the venture is going well, working with friends and family can be great: The extra trust and commitment that everyone shares can help both the business side and the social relationship.

The problem is that things frequently go awry. Then the damage done is often not just the professional downside plus the social downside; it can be the professional downside multiplied by the social downside.

So I would prepare yourselves by outsourcing any disagreements. Decide upfront that every time you disagree, even on something small, you will both go to somebody external who isn’t personally involved. Each of you will then describe your side of the argument in five minutes or less and let that person decide for you—and no matter what, you will take their advice and never mention the topic again. This way, you not only have a mechanism for resolving disagreements, but you can do so quickly, before any tension can build up and destroy either your friendship or business.

One more thing: Pick a third party whom you both dislike. Some intriguing research shows that when an arbitrator is nasty, both parties feel more camaraderie, work better together to resolve the issue and, of course, want to end the disagreement as soon as possible.

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Dear Dan,

A while back, a friend did me a favor with the understanding that I would “return the favor” later. At first, I was eager to reciprocate, but after several months, I’ve become less aggressive about offering to find a way to help her out. Do favors have a shelf life?

—Jen

Only in the minds of the people who owe them.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On an Odorous Obstacle, Great Gift-giving, and Dealing with Dimes

Dec 20

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

How would you handle a community college student who—bluntly put—just smells absolutely horrendous? My other students are complaining that they can’t focus in the classroom. I think that the student should be made aware of her smell so that she can try to resolve it and avoid jeopardizing her social and professional future—but I’m not sure how to broach the topic.

— Kelly 

Sharing this information isn’t going to be easy, but doing so could create many long-term benefits for the student, the community and maybe even yourself—which is why you should definitely tell her.

It might be tempting to convey the information anonymously, which would save you some awkwardness, but it isn’t in the student’s best interest. Some research shows that it is particularly nice to get an anonymous love note because the uncertainty lets us imagine that we are adored by many people. The opposite is likely to be the case with an anonymous note about a negative trait.

My advice: sit the student down and break the news to her. You could start by saying that some people are more sensitive to smell than others and that you suspect her sensitivity is below average. Next, tell her that she has an odor that is noticeable to others and add that you worry that this is making interactions more difficult for her. Finally, offer your ongoing help as she tries to figure out what works for her and what doesn’t.

One last point: A while ago, I decided that every time I see someone with something in their teeth, I would tell them about it. Making this a rule was very helpful for me because now I don’t even need to consider whether to raise this potentially embarrassing point—and 100% of the time, people have thanked me for telling them.

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Dear Dan,

What’s the best way to give a guest speaker a gift they would truly love and appreciate?

—Wilma

Not long ago, I gave some lectures to a very nice group of people. At the end of the retreat, they held an auction of all kinds of souvenirs, and I bid on a homemade blanket that I particularly liked. Later that night, I discovered, they took the blanket out of the auction after I bid on it and gave it to me as a gift.

This was particularly nice for three reasons. First, I clearly liked the blanket because I bid on it. Second, I assumed that other people also wanted it. And finally, it didn’t have a real market value. All this made it a wonderful, highly appreciated gift without a specific price tag.

If you’re willing to be a bit manipulative, you could take this approach a step further: What if you held a live auction, and when you saw something that the guest speaker was interested in, you got other people to dramatically outbid him or her (offering, say, 10 times more than the speaker would)—and, at the end of the night, gave the item in question to the speaker? This process would make clear that your guest coveted the item, as did other people, and that its value was very high. Clearly an ideal gift.

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Dear Dan,

Why will many people not stop on the street to pick up a dime but would certainly stop to pick up a dime if it fell out of their pocket? Isn’t the value of 10 cents the same in both cases?

—Baruch

These might seem like the same case, but they aren’t. When we pick up 10 cents, we add to our wealth (just a bit), but when we reclaim a dime that we dropped, we prevent a loss—and preventing a loss is much more important and valuable.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Selfies, Saving Strategies, and the Scarcity of Attractive Males

Dec 06

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

I’ve noticed more people taking selfies. Some are even walking around with specially designed phone holders that help position their phones a bit farther away for taking better selfies. I’m not part of this selfie age group, and I find it all odd and somewhat annoying. Can you help me understand the fascination? Why can’t the new generation take pictures the good old way?

—Ayelet

The selfies phenomenon is complex, but here are some highlights: Its starting point is those moments we want to capture, for our own memories or to share with others. Now, if we were to stop what we’re doing and ask a stranger to take our picture, we would be stepping out of the moment emotionally: We’d have to stand still while smiling artificially, wait for the picture to be snapped, then try to get back to whatever were doing and feeling.

Selfies solve this problem because we don’t step out of the moment. A selfie can even enhance the moment by getting us to stand closer to one another and look at ourselves together on-screen—a sort of celebration of the shared experience.

Another interesting thing about selfies: We always expect them to produce an awkward, low-quality picture. So those of us who always worry about how we look on camera don’t need to fret as much: Everyone looks bad.

Finally, there is an important interplay between language and decision making at work here: Once we gave a name to the activity of huddling together, looking up at a phone from an uncomfortable angle and taking a picture, it became socially acceptable.

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Dear Dan,

Setting up automatic retirement savings mechanisms (where the default is participation but people can opt out) has been shown to increase savings rates in wealthy countries such as the U.S., Denmark and the Netherlands. But what can be done to raise savings rates in developing countries, where many people work in the informal economy, don’t get regular paychecks and lack access to sophisticated banking services?

—Varun

A recent World Bank report offers some hope. In Kenya, according to the bank, many households report that a lack of cash often holds them back from investing in preventive health products such as insecticide-treated mosquito nets. To help Kenyans save for such needs, researchers provided families with a lockable metal box, a padlock and a place to write the name of the desired item. Simply by making these boxes available, researchers increased the purchase rates of these preventive health products by 66% to 75%, the report said.

The idea behind this approach is that people tend to allocate their funds through a process of “mental accounting” in which they define categories of spending and structure their outlays accordingly. The metal box, the lock and the label all helped people to put money in a separate account dedicated to preventive health products.

More generally, this is an example of the value of labeling for saving and spending—something that each of us can probably use when salting money away for vacations or a rainy-day fund and when grappling with how much to spend on groceries, going out and home renovations.

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Dear Dan,

Broadly speaking, does the advantage of attractiveness differ across gender? Is it better to be attractive as a woman or as a man?

—Ajit

Some scientists theorize that babies look more like their fathers than their mothers so that nature can prove to the father that the baby is indeed his. Once the father is convinced, the baby can morph to look more like the mother. My own theory is that, since babies are often bald, wrinkled and far from attractive, they tend to look more like their fathers. As for your question: Given the rarity of attractive males, I suspect that the (very) few that fit the bill get a larger advantage.

 

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On the Black Friday Binge

Nov 22

Dear Dan,

Thanksgiving is around the corner, including Black Friday, the largest shopping day of the year, when many people spend way too much money. How do we stop this insanity?

—John

People do spend a lot of money on Black Friday, but is that really so irrational? To figure that out, we need to ask which state of the world we should compare this tradition to. If you assume that we could get people to blow less money on Black Friday and decrease overall irresponsible spending, then of course the world would be a better place without Black Friday.

But what if canceling Black Friday just spurred people to start living beyond their means every month of the year? And what if this extra increase in monthly splurging turned out to be larger than the spending increase on Black Friday itself? If all this were true, we would be better off with Black Friday.

Let’s think about dieting as an analogy for shopping. Many diets allow for a “cheat day” because they realize that without the permission to indulge sometimes, people are likely to give up dieting altogether. So the people who design diets have figured out that allowing people to go wild from time to time helps them behave well most of the time. What if Black Friday is the shopping equivalent of the cheat day?

I don’t endorse wasting money, but perhaps we should all figure out how much money we are willing to splurge with, take it in cash and indulge—but only at decent intervals.

Ask Ariely: On Erasing Email and Placebo Performance

Nov 22

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

Recently, the German auto maker Daimler gave employees the option of automatically deleting all emails that arrive while they’re on vacation. Senders get a note suggesting that they resend their email later or write to other colleagues who are still in the office. This way, employees don’t have to face overflowing inboxes when they return. Is this a good idea?

—Kathleen

Not having to worry about email while you’re on vacation sounds wonderful, and this policy will probably boost employees’ well-being—though, of course, some will still wonder what they might have missed.

That said, the Daimler approach seems pretty extreme, and it deals with the symptoms rather than the root problem. In my experience, email stresses people out constantly, not just during vacations. We get too much email every day of the year; we spend too much time responding to it and worrying about it. Email correspondence in many corporations is so out of hand that it leaves almost no time for any actual work.

If the bosses at Daimler really care about their employees’ welfare, why not tackle the inefficiencies of this communication channel—and work to reduce their overall email load? How about announcing that no email is allowed between 9 and 11 a.m. and again between 1 and 3 p.m.? Or what if they limited people to just 10 emails a day? (Does anyone really have more than 10 important things to say in a day?)

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Dear Dan,

I’ve read a lot about the placebo effect. Does that mean it won’t work on me?

—Marco

It turns out that placebos operate to some degree outside of our awareness—which means that even when we know a particular medication is a placebo, we can still benefit from it. So don’t worry about knowing too much. Just take two placebos and call me in the morning.

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See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On the Last Drop of Toothpaste, and Real Scars

Nov 05

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,
 
I went to brush my teeth this morning and found that I had to carefully, meticulously roll the tube from the bottom up before it would yield enough toothpaste. I wound up squeezing the tube so hard that my hands hurt and that I briefly considered buying one of those “toothpaste squeezers” you can find online. As I finally brushed, it occurred to me that my frugality behaviors are terribly inconsistent: I did whatever I could to squeeze as much toothpaste as possible from the tube, not daring to waste a gram of a cheap product—but as I continued with my grooming ritual, I wasted water, soap and many other scarcer, pricier products. 
 
Why is my frugality so inconsistent? And why is there a market for some frugality products, such as those toothpaste squeezers, but not others?
 
—Darin
 
I stopped aiming for consistency a long time ago, and I suggest that you also drop it as a standard for behavior. 
 
Consistency aside, your toothpaste behavior suggests how important attention is to our decision making.  At any moment, we could, in principle, carefully consider all our potential courses of action and all the ways we could save money and time.  But we don’t. We tend to consider only things that are front and center, and thus these aspects of life wind up driving our behavior. This is why, for example, people sometimes drive far out of their way to fill up their car with cheaper gas—wasting time and increasing the wear and tear on their car just to see the number on the pump drop a bit. 
 
More generally, all this implies that if we want people to waste less, we should make the waste clear, salient and visible. Perhaps we could position electrical meters at the center of our kitchens, add a water-measurement device to every faucet or equip cars to measure their total driving cost. And if we really want people to pay attention to these measures, maybe these numbers should be automatically posted to Facebook and Twitter.   

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Dear Dan,
 
Many years ago, I was badly burned, and since then, I carry many visible scars. Recently, at a Halloween party, somebody pointed to the scars on my face and told me what a wonderful costume I had. I tried to correct her and explained that I was really very badly burned, but she burst out laughing.
 
At this point, I had two choices: make her feel guilty or let it go. What should I have done? I must admit that it colored the Halloween party for me, and I no longer felt like I belonged.
 
—Dan (Ariely)
 
 
You should have let it go. The person pointing out your scars clearly had only good intentions, and trying to correct her once was sufficient. This was probably one of hundreds of comments that she made during the party, and while her remark was central for you, if you asked her in 48 hours about her memories from the party, she probably wouldn’t even remember you, your scars or her comment. You had already stopped enjoying the party after her comment; my guess is that having made her feel bad about her remark would only have intensified your negative feelings.
 
P.S. One more lesson from this unfortunate episode: Sometimes, putting yourself in the position of an external advisor and asking yourself what advice you’d give to someone else in the same situation can be a useful way to reason more calmly and make better decisions. Good luck using this approach next time.

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See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Buying Beer, Realizing Wrong, and Productive Periods

Oct 25

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

I’m about to buy a new laptop—definitely a larger than usual purchase for me. I’ve found that when the base item is expensive, I’m much more likely to indulge in complementary ones, such as a new laptop case or software that I don’t really need but would be fun to play with. Why is it that I think twice about buying good beer on a night out but have no problem spending another $60 on a computer mouse I don’t need?

— Andrew

Here’s another example to help think through your question. Imagine that you’re going to buy a new car for $30,000, and the salesperson tells you that you can get leather seats for $2,000 more. How expensive would those luxurious seats seem to you? And how likely would you be to go for the upgrade?

Now imagine that instead of going to buy a car, you’re buying a new chair for your home office, at a cost of $500—and the furniture store tells you that you can get the chair in leather for $2,000 more. How likely would you be to go for it?

Most people would feel much better about the car upgrade than the chair upgrade. That’s because we think about money in relative terms: Relative to $30,000, that $2,000 doesn’t look that bad, but the same amount feels outrageous relative to $500.

Of course, money isn’t relative, and we should think about it in absolute terms, but this isn’t the natural way we make financial decisions. All this doesn’t make your tendency to shop for items you don’t need after a large purchases any more rational—but it should remind you that it’s very human.

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Dear Dan,

My husband is incapable of admitting that he is wrong, and it’s driving me crazy. What can I do to get him to acknowledge it when he’s wrong?

— Lisa

I suspect that many of the times that you most want your husband to admit that he’s wrong occur in large and central debates—which could be a mistake on your part.

One of the main problems with admitting error is reputation. Your husband may think that if he admits once that he was wrong, it will indicate that he could be wrong in other cases as well. If this is the case, a better way to fight his denial of wrongness will be to try to get him to admit once to a trivial mistake, maybe even in front of other people—and then hope that with that first step out of the way, the path to admitting other blunders will be more open.

Or here’s a less ambitious approach: give up on having him admit error and focus on just having him say that he’s wrong. For many years, psychologists used to recommend that married couples engage in something called “active listening”—telling the other person that we feel their pain and asking them to describe their annoyance in vivid color and detail. But psychologists have figured out that active listening was actually not very good advice. As it turns out, simply saying “Yes dear” is a much better strategy for a happy marriage. If your husband believes in science, perhaps sharing this sage advice with him will convince him that, despite his difficulty admitting that he’s wrong, agreement is often the best approach.

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Dear Dan,

When are people most productive? In the morning? At night? Are different people more productive at different times of day?

— Jacob

No question about it: For all kinds of people, the most productive time is tomorrow.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

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